Astronomy brings big bucks to state
The dark night skies and dry air in Arizona make it a hot spot for the astronomy industry, which has generated a significant amount of money for the state.
The industry brings in more than $250 million a year and 3,300 jobs statewide. Most of this money comes from research projects, said Peter Wehinger, staff astronomer and director of development at the University of Arizona Steward Observatory.
“[Arizona] has a huge concentration of people who work as serious researchers in this field,” he said. “More so than any other state."
Gov. Jan Brewer supported the profitable industry in March by vetoing a bill that would have allowed illuminated billboards along state highways. The billboard lights could have threatened the future of astronomy in Arizona. The large amount of bright lights would hinder star visibility at night and push astronomers out of the state, Wehinger said.
“If we were to have unlimited lighting that would be equivalent to saying it’s always cloudy in Arizona so we won’t do anymore astronomy here,” he said.
If city lights forced the industry out of Arizona, it could lose income from more than just research projects. The Steward Observatory also generated income from its Mirror Lab that builds giant telescope mirrors. According to Alan Brass, a tour guide at the lab, they are sold to institutions worldwide for $11 to $25 million per mirror.
Brass said without astronomy Tucson also would lose a significant amount of money from tourism. Hundreds of scientists visit the city every year for conferences and other astronomy events. During each visit, they spend money on things like food and hotel rooms. This spending generates a significant amount of money for the city.
“Astronomy adds about as much money to the Tucson economy as having a Super Bowl every year,” Brass said.
According to Brass, although the public rarely notices its impact, the astronomy industry is an important part of the city’s economy.
“It’s as much a natural resource as clean water or clean air,” Brass said. “But it’s a scientific natural resource.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of money astronomy brings into the state each year. The industry brings in more than $250 million per year to Arizona’s economy.